A Celebration of Wildlife in Yellowstone National Park

By Chris Umpierre

The determination in the bison’s eyes is something I’ll never forget.

The mammal had a right front leg injury and was walking with a limp when my family saw him in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park this summer. The six-foot-tall, 2,000-pound bison looked after its orange reddish baby calf. I sat in awe as the light brown bison did everything in its power to move. The bison rocked its head back and forward just to walk. Its right front leg flailed with each step. Pain was shooting through its body, but the animal never stopped journeying forward. 

As a father of two young children, I felt a pang. Here was an injured parent using every last bit of energy to care for its calf. The duo was only a few feet from the roadway. We could look into the elder bison’s eyes, and sense determination. 

Wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995, and I imagine the bison was thinking about those predators. The injury had created a serious issue for not only its safety, but for the 70-pound calf. But the steely eyes conveyed that it would go down fighting for its child.

Bison and a calf, photo by Chris Umpierre.

Bison and a calf, photo by Chris Umpierre.

Fighting for Its CAlf

Unaware of the seriousness of the situation, the baby calf played in the yellow daisies, grinning at the funny tourists in the black rental car. My children, ages 5 and 2, leaned from their seats and gestured to the calf. “Daddy,” my eldest daughter said, “Look at the baby!”

My eyes, however, were fixed on the parent. We didn’t know how it became injured. We just saw it limping, and doing everything to keep moving.

It was here, in this idyllic setting, where I came to understand the beauty of our national parks and how animals are so much like us. Family was everything for this majestic bison. Whatever had happened to its body could wait. First, it would do everything possible to make sure the child was OK. It’s how my wife or I would react if put in the same situation. Taking care of offspring and looking out for their safety is instinctive, from the largest mammal to the smallest.

We’re not sure what happened to this incredible duo. They kept trudging along the roadway as we drove away. My family and I drove to a nearby park ranger station in the hopes of notifying a ranger but it was empty at the time. As difficult as it is to say, it’s not clear if anything could have been done. As visitors to national parks, we know we should only observe.

Bison in Yellowstone, photo by Chris Umpierre

Bison in Yellowstone, photo by Chris Umpierre

The bison: America’s national mammal

The story of the bison and baby was just one of several moments my family was fortunate to witness on our first trip to Yellowstone. In our three days of driving around America’s first national park, we saw hundreds of bison. They were mostly clustered together in herds. We saw them nosh on grass. We saw them cross the road. We saw them bathe. We saw them nuzzle with their calves. We saw them play in the water. We saw them wag their tails to shake off flies.

Yellowstone’s bison population is estimated at 4,900, the largest bison population on public lands anywhere in the world. The American bison, which was recently named the national mammal of the United States, have lived in the Yellowstone area since prehistoric times. Yellowstone, in fact, is the only place in the United States where bison have continuously lived since prehistoric times. I’m so proud this country fought to keep the bison from going extinct.

Observing a wolf in the wild

In addition to bison, my family was fortunate to see a young wolf. My father-in-law was driving on one of Yellowstone’s winding roads when he suddenly screamed: “There’s a wolf!”

Excuse me? Did you say wolf? Yes, a wolf. The announcement woke me from my nap.

My father-in-law made a U-turn and there it was: a gray wolf, no older than four years old, working through vivid green and purple wildflowers. We wondered why it was alone, and what it might be looking for. We wondered if parents or pack were nearby. As the wolf climbed a small hill adjacent to the road, everybody in the car roared with excitement.

Hours earlier, we had spent the majority of our morning looking for wolves through a known Yellowstone lookout point. Dozens of other tourists showed up, too. Longtime Yellowstone observers said they had seen a wolf and bear through their long-distance telescopes in an area about seven miles away. The wolf they saw, however, looked minuscule through the telescope viewfinder. We looked through their telescopes and only saw trees and brush. We thought our hopes of seeing a wolf were slim, but then..

This young wolf was probably ten feet away from our car. It trekked up a small hill and stopped in front of a small rock. It studied the cars winding through the road. No other cars stopped. This show was only for the lucky family in the black Ford Expedition.

Up close with a pronghorn

Pronghorn antelope, photo by Chris Umpierre.

Pronghorn antelope, photo by Chris Umpierre.

We were also fortunate enough to see pronghorns. At one point, I exited the rental car and walked in the direction of a grazing pronghorn. I was maybe 300 feet away. I got closer. Took pictures. Moved closer. Took some more pictures.

Then the pronghorn raised its head and looked at me — time to go back to the car. 

Later, we saw a pronghorn five feet from the roadway, a brown coat on his back and a white underbelly. Black horns stood tall. The pronghorn was noshing on some yellow daisies. My mother-in-law motioned to my children: “Look girls, he’s eating!” At that point, the pronghorn looked up, locked his eyes on us and stomped his right foot.

It was as though he were saying, “Guys, let me eat!”

Deer trudging through a Yellowstone river

On our last day in Yellowstone, we came upon a trail of stopped cars. This happens a lot in Yellowstone. It’s usually because a) there is an animal on the road, b) there is an animal near the road, or c) there is an animal in a tree or hill.

With rain pouring down, we parked our rental car on the side of the road and got to the root of the hullabaloo.

Three deer were walking in a nearby river. With water up to their knees and rain falling down, the deer slogged their way through the water. I looked through the viewfinder on my Nikon camera and couldn’t believe the sight. Once again, these beautiful Yellowstone animals were teaching us the meaning of family. These deer weren’t walking by themselves. They were a unit. They were together. Humans and animals want to be with others. It is in our DNA.

It was a revelation to see the deer taking care of themselves and making sure everybody made it through the river. As they walked, the deer glanced from side to side. They were looking for predators, I’m sure. The wild is not for the weak.

Lessons from a courageous bison

It is the same reality the tenacious father bison and his baby surely met.

I hope the father bison found his herd. I hope he healed his leg. I hope the father and baby are well. Though we will never know, I can’t stop thinking about them. I can’t stop thinking about all of the animals we saw on our majestic trip — bison and baby, wolf, pronghorn, and deer. 

My family and I journeyed to Yellowstone in the hopes of seeing bears, but it was this intrepid bison and its baby that stole our hearts. Seeing the bison care for its offspring was unforgettable. Watching other bison look out for the herd was remarkable. Animals, as we learned, can teach humans a lot about life.

Family comes first. Love is in us all. Determination and willpower goes a long way. Those are just some of the lessons we learned deep inside Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley in the summer of ’16.

Chris Umpierre grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Miami, where he works in public relations. He covered the UCLA men's basketball team as a UCLA student, spent 13 years as a journalist and currently writes about sports, real estate and travel. Find him online at www.chrisumpierre.com or on Twitter at @ChrisUmpierre


Banner photo by Neal Herbert / CC